Friday, December 30, 2011

The state of smartphones

Apple didn't invent the smart phone. Phones capable of running applications and accessing the Internet were around well before the iPhone. Apple's big contribution was to replace the dedicated keys with a touch screen. That was enough to revolutionize the cell phone industry. For years Apple has produced the biggest-selling phone.

Apple did leave some openings. The biggest one was their deal with AT&T. The deal was good for both companies but it left the other phone companies hungry for a competing device.

The big winner here was Google's Android. It succeeded because it was the anti-Apple. Where Apple makes and sells one phone at a time, Android is freely available to anyone for any device. If you want to make a smart phone or a tablet or an ebook reader, you can customize a version of Android to run it. This also allows for customization. You can get android phones with screens bigger and smaller than the iPhone. Some have forward-facing cameras, some don't. Some have slide-out keyboards. You can even run it on a tablet and hide the interface like the Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet.

This diversity creates some problems. Apple ties the hardware and software together tightly and limits variations. In contrast, Google releases an operating system and allows the vendors to modify it any way they want. Developers for the iPhone only have to test on a couple of models. Android developers have to worry about dozens of possibilities so the apps are less reliable and less polished.

For many people, that polish is the deciding factor. They go with Apple. Others prefer the freedom of having a phone that accepts an SD card and can use Windows Explorer to copy files instead of iTunes.

For some time, industry pundits have been complaining about updates to the Android operating system. When Google releases a new update it can take months before your phone receives it, if ever. Many phones are not updated. these pundits see this as a huge problem.

I don't. In the year and a half I have had my Android phone it has gone from version 2.1 to 2.3. I am highly technical and I read the release notes for each update. Despite this, I can hardly tell the difference between the updates. The biggest difference I noticed between 2.2 and 2.3 was that the Gmail icon in the notification bar changed slightly. Knowing this, it would not have mattered a bit if my phone had not received the upgrade.

I think that what concerns most people is if the phone does what they bought it for.

I do not expect my phone to receive Android 4.0 aka Ice Cream Sandwich. It would be expecting a lot for a phone to get a major upgrade two years after it was released. Even Apple drops support for their older phones.

That brings us to Microsoft which is trying to get traction in the phone market. They invented their own interface which looks nothing like the iPhone. Microsoft is trying to split the difference. They let others make the phones like Android but they have strict hardware requirements and allow little customization. That means that there is little to distinguish one Windows phone from another. That gives manufacturers little incentive to push a Windows phone. On top of this, Microsoft was at least a year late in entering this market. They would have a much bigger market share if they had entered while the iPhone was limited to AT&T and before the Droid line of phones.

My prediction for the phone market is that it will continue as it is with Android being the dominant operating system, the iPhone the biggest individual seller, and the Windows Phone a niche player. The biggest change will be that manufacturers will do less customization to the Android interface.

Tablets are still an open market. The iPad has been out less than two years. The first crop of competing Android tablets were based on the 2.2 or 2.3 release. Most of them were buggy and overpriced. The tablets based on 3.0 were not much better. Google was never satisfied with 3.0 and never released it as open source. The only way a tablet could compete was on price but many of these cost more than an iPad. The Kindle and Nook tablets changed this, offering a 7" tablet at or below cost with the expectation of future profits by selling content. Ice Cream Sandwich promises to support both phones and tablets and may finally let Android tablets compete with the iPad.

Microsoft has an opening here but they need to get a product out the door soon and it needs to be either competitively priced or superior to the iPad (and I mean really better in every way). Changing the Windows 8 interface to look like a touch phone will not be enough to sell tablets. Otherwise the subsidized Kindle and Nook will continue to dominate the tablet market for the next year.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Happy Birthday Stan

Stan Lee turns 89 today. While Stan is best known for the characters he created his biggest influence was on how the stories were told. Prior to the 1960s, comic books seldom had continuity and super heroes had interchangeable personalities. Stan, who always wanted to write the great American novel (under his birth name Stanley Martin Leiber) felt stuck as a comic book writer/editor. At his wife's suggestion he started writing comic books that he would like to read. This happened just as Stan was asked to create a new superhero team to compete with the Justice League. Stan and Jack Kirby created the Fantastic Four and Stan changed the name of the company from Timely to Marvel. It took around three years before things really coalesced but by the end of the decade Marvel was the dominant comic book company.

Stan had three other contributions. One was a different style of writing. Instead of having interchangeable artists drawing in the house style from a finished script, Stan started collaborating with the artist and the two of them would agree on the plot. The artist would draw it and Stan would add the dialog. That let the artist decide the pacing of the story and allowed him to add touches of his own. The original plot for Fantastic Four 48-50 did not include the Silver Surfer. Kirby thought that Galactus needed a herald and added him on his own.

Stan's next contribution was credits. Prior to Marvel, the creators of a comic book were seldom named. Stan changed this, putting a large credit box on the title page. This started out as just the writer and artist but was expanded to include the inker, letterer, and colorist. Many in the industry complained that Stan was stealing credit since his name was always on top, even if he was only the editor, but no other company at the time credited the creators.

Stan's final contribution was the letters page. This was multipurpose. It allowed Stan to hype future stories and other titles but it also acted as a primitive message board. There were long-running technical discussions about such things as how Iron Man's armor works and if Tony stark was a pig (someone who made money during war by manufacturing weapons). Many letter writers went on to get jobs in the industry. I think that the letters pages were a big contributor to the rise of comic fandom.

Stan made many other contributions but these revolutionized the industry and are often overlooked.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Best Christmas Movies and Specials

Just a quick run-down off the top of my head of what is currently showing:

All-time best Christmas special: Charlie Brown Christmas. This is nearly fifty years old but it is still amazingly relevant. For the last few years, reproductions of Charlie Brown's tree have topped the ornament lists. In a bit of tragic irony, the copies are plastic and made in China. Runner-up: How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

Best current specials: Disney's Prep and Landing series. The first of these was Disney's first project after merging with Pixar and it has all of the hallmarks that have made Pixar so successful. They have made two and a half (two half-hour ones and a fifteen minute short) and all are worth multiple viewings. In fact, they are so tightly plotted that they improve after a viewing or two.

Best version of A Christmas Carol: The 1984 version with George C. Scott. Even though it was made for TV, the production values are comparable with a theatrical release. Runners-up: Scrooged, Muppet Christmas Carol, and Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol (Trivia: Magoo's Christmas Carol was the first animated Christmas special).

Best Christmas movie: Christmas Story. Set in 1939, this movie shows how little childhood has changed over the decades. Lots of movies feature children but this one is written from a child's perspective. Runner-up: Miracle on 34th Street, the Bishop's Wife, Christmas in Connecticut.

Best current Christmas movie: Arthur Christmas. This takes the army of high-tech elves from Prep and Landing and raises the anti. An aging Santa delivers presents with the help of an army of elves. His older son can't wait to take over the job (complete with an Armani Santa suit). His father wants to prove that the old way with a sled and reindeer still works. His youngest son, Arthur, just wants to be sure that no child is missed.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

What Makes a Christmas Special?

What makes a TV special or movie a Christmas special? If you think about it, many Christmas shows and movies are set in December but have little or nothing to do with Christmas. By the way, everything listed here is worth watching, even if it has little to do with Christmas.

In the 19th century, Charles Dickens felt that Christmas had declined and decided to revive it. He wrote a series of novels set during Christmas starting with A Christmas Carol. Christmas is central to the book and the numerous movie adaptations.

I finally saw the Gum Drop Kid last night. The song Silver Bells is from this movie. Most of it is set in New York in late December. A small-time hustler, played by Bob Hope, has to raise money fast in order to pay off a gangster. He sets up a fake charity and sends out hoods dressed as Santa Clause to solicit contributions. Other than a couple of scenes with snow and the guys dressed as Santa, it has little to do with Christmas.

Likewise, White Christmas. Some veterans hold a fund-raiser for their former commander. It takes place at Christmas and they sing White Christmas. In fact, the movie was written to cash in on the popularity of the song which actually came from the movie Holiday Inn. This movie had production numbers for all the holidays but is remembered for White Christmas.

Christmas in Connecticut is set during Christmas. The plot revolves around a woman who writes a column about cooking for her husband and baby but who is actually single and cannot cook. It could be moved to another holiday with a few script changes.

Its a Wonderful Life is set at Christmas but could easily be moved to New Year's Eve.

In The Bishop's Wife, an angel comes to Earth to help a bishop. He ends up spending most of his time with the bishop's neglected wife and convincing a major donor that it would be better to give her money to charity than pay for a new cathedral. Christmas is a backdrop.

While Christmas Story takes place during December, most of it could have taken place at any time. Winning a lamp shaped like a leg has nothing to do with Christmas although it has become a symbol of the movie. The quest for a Red Ryder BB gun is one of many plots.

How the Grynch Stole Christmas, both the tv show and the movie, are outright Christmas movies. The celebration of Christmas is the catalyst and the spirit of Christmas brings about the resolution.

All of these movies were set around Christmas. Movies and programs featuring Santa Claus up the ante.

Christmas, or at least Santa Claus, is central to A Miracle on 34th Street. We never do find out for certain if Chris is a delusional old man or Santa Clause.

Most of Santa Claus the Movie takes place at Christmas but, surprisingly, the climax takes place in January. Note - although I included it on my list, this is not a very good movie. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is more watchable.

The original song Frosty the Snowman did not have anything to do with Christmas. That was added in the TV special.

The current movie, Arthur Christmas takes place on Christmas Eve. The plot revolves around Arthur's struggle to deliver a toy that his father (Santa) overlooked.

Only a few Christmas specials make any reference to Christ. A Charlie Brown Christmas is unique by including a nativity play (which never gets off the ground) and a reading from the Bible. The message is that there is more to Christmas than commercialism. The made-in-China plastic Charlie Brown trees are a horrible mockery of the special's message.

NBC made two stop-motion specials set during the nativity. The first was based on the hit song The Little Drummer Boy. The second was a sequel.

So, what conclusions can we draw from this? Not many. A few Christmas movies feature a life-changing event. Many more are simply set at Christmas. Christianity is seldom part of a Christmas movie although some sort of spiritual event might be. Romance is more common than spiritual awakening.

Outside of Santa Claus, what sets good Christmas movies apart is some sense that this is the time to care about friends and family.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Nook Color 1.4

Barnes and Noble released the 1.4 version of the Nook Color operating system yesterday. Rather than waiting up up to a week for an over the air update, I loaded it by hand. This is easy enough. You download a .zip file to your PC, plug in the USB connection to the Nook, copy the file to the root directory and disconnect it. As soon as the Nook goes to sleep it recognizes the file and loads it.

I could tell that this was a major update. I still had the .zip file from the 1.3 release and the 1.4 file was much larger - nearly 1/4 gig.

After doing the update I gave it a spin.

The biggest change is how you access the menu bar and home screen. Previously the physical Nook button did very little. Most functions were performed with a soft button at the bottom of the screen. The soft button is gone. Its functionality has been replaced by the Nook button. You press this once to get the menu bar, twice to go to the home screen.

When the Nook Color first came out it was a dedicated ebook reader that had a few tablet functions. By this release it is a tablet with a built-in ebook reader. The web browser worked well on several sites and it handles YouTube quite well. Pinch to zoom does not seem to work but you can set the default font size which helped with the 7" screen. Email worked better than on my phone, nearly as well as on a full PC.

One improvement was the auto rotate. This now works with ebooks.

There are a few annoyances. There is no hardware "back" button. Some applications have a soft one. Others do not. I looked at a PDF attached to an email but could not go directly back to the email. Instead I had to bring up the menu and use it to get to the email program.

The sound is poor, even with the sound turned up all the way. Earphones would help a lot. At least it has hardware volume buttons.

The tablet itself has a nice solid feel and is very light. When we bought it my wife got an anti-glare filter which we have not used. It does not seem to need it.

For some reason, Nook does not include a Gmail app. You have to access this through the web browser. There is no Facebook app but there is a free replacement which works as well or better than Facebook's own app. B&Ns app store is only a fraction of the Android Market and nearly everything costs something (usually $0.99) but it is fairly well stocked and you don't have to worry about Trojans.

For those who want a $199 tablet but don't want to buy into the Amazon ecosystem, this is a good choice. I'm not sure that the extra speed of the Nook Tablet is worth the additional $50.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Santa's Workshop on TV

Starting in 1960 and lasting for 12 years, WBNS TV in Columbus ran a program called Luci's Toyshop. This was during the golden age of local programming. Most people had TVs but the networks daily coverage left many holes for local stations to fill. Mornings were for kids.

Luci's Toyshop was sort of a local version of Captain Kangaroo with a human Luci interacting with different puppets. It was also the first show in the country to carry Gumby cartoons.

But in early December, things got interesting (if you were a kid). Luci always had a special visitor, Santa Claus. He always needed help making all of the toys that he would be distributing on Christmas Eve so Luci and company would help him set up a toy-making machine.  Santa would also read the letters kids wrote to him (care of the station).

Officially Santa had a half hour show called Santa's Workshop following Luci. Characters and plots (such as they were) carried over between the two so it was really an hour-long show.

The show was sponsored by Columbus's big downtown department story, Lazarus. Lazarus itself was a kid's wonderland at Christmas with an animated window and other special areas. As toys came out of the toy machine, Luci would tell us what a great toy it was and that it could be found at Lazarus.

Kids didn't care about that. The big attraction that we got to see Santa. To a young child in December, there was no one cooler than Santa.

Even at the age of five, I knew that Santa employed an army of decoys known as "helpers" but it was obvious that this was the real Santa and that he could be found at Lazarus when he wasn't on TV.

A few things that I didn't realize when I was five - the Santa who appeared with Luci was never a Lazarus Santa. In fact, Lazarus had multiple Santas so that the lines were short. The man who played Santa was Tom Gleba, a long-time WBNS employee and the person who had the distinction of being the first person televised in central Ohio.